The CEO and Founder of Cradles to Crayons talks about what is required to be successful in civic entrepreneurialism.
Searching for opportunities to learn about my new community upon arriving to the New England region, I came across Cradles to Crayons. This group serves children in the Boston area, and its organizational focus is on collecting donated items such as backpacks and school supplies from the community to help families meet their children’s educational needs. Storage and processing of these donated items takes place at the Giving Factory, a 37,000 square foot facility in Brighton, Massachusetts, where I had the opportunity to participate as a volunteer. Standing in amazement at the sheer size of the Cradles to Crayons’ Giving Factory operation during my volunteer orientation, I decided to learn more about the organization’s development.
Founded in 2002 by Lynn Margherio, Cradles to Crayons is based on the seemingly simple idea that children should have the materials necessary to succeed in education. Cradles to Crayons has grown to serve tens of thousands of children in the Boston area and in 2007 expanded to support families in the Philadelphia area with a second Giving Factory. Lynn and I sat down one afternoon to discuss the work that was done to start an organization capable of service at the size and scope of Cradles to Crayons.
When discussing the challenges that Lynn faced in building Cradles to Crayons she recalls the beginning when it was just her and a truck picking up donated items. Lynn explains that she is originally from Michigan and navigating the unfamiliar streets of Boston proved to be quite tricky at the start. Not being from the area also meant that Lynn had to develop new connections and support in the region, sharing with a smile, “I did not have much of a network here.” Building this network was part of building an organization, Lynn explains, citing as an example the chance meeting and recruitment of a future board member while picking up donations from his home.
The logistics of collecting donated items proved more challenging than simply the pickup—the unpredictable timing of the donations also presented obstacles. Lynn states that “it was not like I could pick up the phone and order from a supplier.” In developing the process of stocking her store, Lynn began to learn the rhythm of giving trends around the spring and fall “cleaning swaps” when people were most likely to donate. And in order to accommodate the unpredictable nature of collection, Lynn needed space to hold and process the donated items.
Finding space presented its own unique challenges which Lynn sought to address, again using the resources available. A couple of instances prior to the development of the current, expansive Giving Factory, Lynn’s consulting office served to store and process the initial donations. Often “necessity breeds innovation,” explains Lynn, and that creative force went beyond commandeering office space to eventually recruiting her office colleagues to help out in the cause. It was during this time when Lynn, simultaneously doing the business and public policy consulting and founding Cradles to Crayons, resolved to run the fledgling not-for-profit with sound business principles.
“You have to take an idea and flush it out,” Lynn says, making clear Cradles to Crayons’ work and commitment to validating the concept from the start. This validation process was accomplished by reaching out to various targeted organizations serving children and asking if there was a need not being filled. Upon discovering a need, Lynn worked to understand if there were partners willing to supply inventory through donation drives. Lynn states that establishing these partnerships also provided Cradles to Crayons another critical component beyond donations—these groups extended credibility by association, promoting Cradles to Crayons in the community.
Once Cradles to Crayons had established an organizational credibility through sustained accomplishment and impact, other people and groups recognized the potential scalability of the organizational service model. Jennifer Case, inspired by the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, began work to understand if the Cradles to Crayons model could be replicated in the Philadelphia area. Regarding a potential expansion to a new city, Lynn shares the questions asked of Jennifer Case during the initial discussions—”Is the service unique and is it something people want?” Again, Lynn highlights the importance of sustaining sound business principles in growing Cradles to Crayons when she describes the extensive effort to develop a business plan for Cradles to Crayons Philadelphia.
Lynn believes that Cradles to Crayons is a positive example of a simple idea that worked. When vetting a concept as a business or civic entrepreneur, Lynn warns against abandoning an idea because it is seemingly too simple and concluding that someone must already be doing it. Lynn’s advice to aspiring civic entrepreneurs is just “don’t assume it’s an obvious idea.”
Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.
** Please note that the Work of Start founder interviews will now be published quarterly instead of monthly in order to accommodate the historic start articles. **